When Dr. Patrice A. Harris decided she would go into medicine as a youth, she never thought she would eventually make history.

After all, it was watching “Marcus Welby, M.D.,” as a child that helped her make the decision to go into medicine in the first place.

Who would have thought that the television series that Harris said was “the Grey’s Anatomy of my day” would lead to Harris being elected the first African-American woman to lead the American Medical Association — the largest association of physicians and medical students in the United States.

Certainly, not Harris. But, believe it or not, the show had an impact on Harris that she recognizes even today.

“Dr. Welby was a kind and caring family physician, who not only treated his patient’s illnesses but also intervened when there were family or community issues. (Welby) looked at issues beyond the exam room,” Harris explained. “I knew that was exactly what i wanted to do.

“It never dawned on me that I couldn’t do that, especially since I didn’t personally know any family physicians,” she continued. “And certainly not any physicians who looked like me.”

But it was then, while in the eighth grade, that Harris made the decision that she’d become a pediatrician.

Now, all she had to do was figure out how to get there.

Harris often jokes about when she first told her mother she wanted to become a physician. She says her mom was worried that the younger Harris would be broke because her patients would only be able to afford to pay her in chickens.

But Harris’ mother supported her career choice nonetheless. She knew that Harris’s mind was made up and that “this was going to be a calling for me,” Harris explained.

“I grew up in a small tight knit community with a large extended family who have always been a source of strength and encouragement,” Harris said about her childhood. “My parents taught me that I could be anything I wanted to be and never wavered in their support.”

Harris was raised by her parents in Bluefield, West Virginia. The two had met on the campus of Bluefield State College, a small historically black college tucked away in the foothills of the Appalachia.

Years ago, Bluefield State College, which started as a school for teachers, was the only option for blacks in West Virginia. Today, it is one of the only HBCUs in the country with a majority of its student population — nearly 80 percent — made up of white students.

When it was time for Harris to attend college, she chose West Virginia University in Morgantown, a three-and-a-half hour drive from her hometown.

There, she studied psychology and obtained her bachelor’s degrees in psychology and then a master’s degree in counseling psychology.

“Having no relatives or family friends who had gone to medical school, I didn’t even know what major I should choose as an undergraduate,  let alone how to best prepare for entrance into medical school,” Harris explained. “Despite being discouraged at times, I persisted. I tried to learn from each detour and challenge and apply lessons learned to the next challenge.”     

Next, she applied and was accepted into the University’s School of Medicine, where she initially continued her dream of practicing pediatrics, until she got into her third year and found greater interest in her psychiatry rotations.

She chose to move south to Atlanta for residency and fellowship in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Forensic Psychiatry at Emory University Hospital.

Throughout Harris’s career, she has served on the front lines of medicine at the local, state and federal levels.

Now, as president-elect, she will serve as a spokesperson of American medicine at the global and international level.

In October, Harris and her team travel to Reykjavik, Iceland, where they will represent that AMA at the World Medical Association general assembly and ethics conference.

The president-elect position for the AMA represents the first year of a three-year term as spokesperson and leading authority for American medicine.

Next June, Harris will ascend to president for a yearlong term. The following year, she will serve as Immediate Past President.

A psychiatrist from Atlanta, Harris has diverse experience as a private practicing physician, public health administrator, patient advocate and medical society lobbyist.

She was first elected to the American Medical Association Board of Trustees in June 2011.

Active in organized medicine her entire career, Harris has also served on the board of the American Psychiatric Association (APA) and was an APA delegate to the AMA.

She has also been a member of the governing council of the AMA Women Physicians Congress, testified before and served on AMA reference committees, and has served on AMA work groups on health information technology, SGR and private contracting.

The AMA board of trustees appointed her to the AMA Council on Legislation in 2003, and she was elected by the council in 2010 to serve as its chair.

Harris also serves as chairwoman of the AMA’s Task Force for the Opioid Crisis.

In that role, she oversees a team responsible for researching, lobbying, advocating and disseminating knowledge aimed at eradicating the abuse of opioids.

Last month, Harris’s task force released a progress report, titled, “Physicians’ progress to reverse the nation’s opioid epidemic.”

Some highlights of its findings include:

  • Between 2013 and 2017, the number of opioid prescriptions decreased by more than 55 million—a 22.2 percent decrease nationally.
  • All 50 states have seen a decrease in opioid prescriptions over the last five years.1
  • The nation saw a 9 percent decrease—more than 19 million fewer prescriptions—between 2016 and 2017 alone.
  • Naloxone prescriptions more than doubled in 2017, from approximately 3,500 to 8,000 naloxoneprescriptions dispensed per week.
  • Between January 2018 and April 2018, naloxone prescriptions dispensed reached a record high in the United States, increasing to more than 11,600 naloxone prescriptions.
  • There are now more than 50,000 physicians certified to provide in-office buprenorphine for the treatment of opioid use disorder across all 50 states—a 42.2 percent increase in the past year.

“The largest decrease in opioid prescriptions in 25 years reflects the fact that physicians and other healthcare professionals are increasingly judicious when prescribing opioids,” Harris said in the progress report. “We need well-designed initiatives that bring together public and private insurers, policymakers, public health infrastructure, and communities with the shared goal to improve access and coverage for comprehensive pain management and treatment for substance use disorders.”

Harris has held many leadership positions at the state level as well, including serving on the board and as president of the Georgia Psychiatric Physicians Association and on the Medical Association of Georgia’s Council on Legislation, its Committee on Constitution and Bylaws, and its Membership Task Force.

She was also the founding president of the Georgia Psychiatry Political Action Committee.

In 2001 Dr. Harris was selected Psychiatrist of the Year by the Georgia Psychiatric Physicians Association. In 2007 she was inducted into the West Virginia University Academy of Distinguished Alumni.

As past director of Health Services for Fulton County, Ga., which includes Atlanta, Dr. Harris was the county’s chief health officer, overseeing all county health-related programs and functions, including a wide range of public safety, behavioral health, and primary care treatment and prevention services.

She spearheaded the county’s efforts to integrate public health, behavioral health and primary care services.

She also served as medical director for the Fulton County Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities.

Currently, Harris continues in private practice and consults with both public and private organizations on health service delivery and emerging trends in practice and health policy.

She serves as an adjunct assistant professor in Emory University’s department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences.

Despite her successes, Harris wants people to know that her journey has not be exactly linear.

Though she has practiced medicine for more than 20 years, there were people along the way who suggested she go into nursing instead.

Harris trusted her gut, and forged forward using her instinct and passion to lead her to make decisions that have paid off for her in the long run.

“My journey to where I am today was full of detours and challenges,” she said. “I tried to learn from each detour and challenge and apply lessons learned to the next challenge.”

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